You may have heard of the campfire steel wool trick, the one where you use batteries and steel wool to kickstart a campfire.
But, like me, you may have wondered, is steel wool flammable? If so, why is it flammable? What precautions should be taken when handling and storing it?
Is Steel Wool Flammable?
Yes, steel wool is flammable. Flammable materials can be easily ignited when in contact with an open flame. Unlike a block or bar of steel, steel wool has a greater surface area for oxidation and combustion to take place.
These steel strands allow more oxygen and heat to come in contact with the metal. It will burn at temperatures between 1290°F and 1300°F.
How Flammable Is Steel Wool?
Steel is primarily made up of iron, and iron is flammable. However, as most iron materials come in bars or solids, there's very little room for oxygen to come in contact with the molecules when in contact with fire, reducing the chances of combustion.
Its flammability could significantly increase with the grade of the wool. Steel wool is produced in eight grades ranging from grade 0000 (ultra fine) to grade 4 (extra coarse). These are the classifications of steel wool:
- 0000 – Super Fine
- 000 – Extra Fine
- 00 – Very Fine
- 0 – Fine
- 1 – Medium
- 2 – Medium Coarse
- 3 – Coarse
- 4 – Extra Coarse
The coarse wires have thicker strands with less surface area than the fine steel wool with thinner strands.
The flammability of steel wool also depends on the manufacturing process and purpose. For example, some steel wool produced for polishing surfaces will be coated or treated in oils that help improve its purpose. However, these oils could significantly increase the flammability of the wool.
What Is Steel Wool?
Steel wool, unlike its name, doesn't come from sheep, rabbits, or alpacas. But like its name, it comes from steel through the process called broaching, where heavy steel wires are shaved to produce thinner fibers or wires of steel. It's also called steel wire, iron wool, or wire wool.
Uses Of Steel Wool
The most common use of steel wool is for cleaning. For cleaning, some manufacturers produce steel wool in wraps or rolls pre-soaked in soap, used for cleaning glass and porcelain products. In addition, it's used to rid car headlights of gunk and dirt, and one very popular use of steel wool is to start campfires.
Steel wool can also be used for polishing and smoothing working surfaces, including woodwork and metalwork. For example, mechanics and jewelers use steel wool to polish metal surfaces. It also helps eliminate tarnish from natural brass and sharpens scissors.
When steel wool is used to polish non-ferrous metals like aluminum, it causes an after-rust that discolors the surface. Polishing oak is also not advisable because the compound tannin in oak reacts with residual iron to give a blue-black stain on the wood.
How To Start A Campfire With Your Steel Wool
To start a campfire, you need cotton wool, paper or dry leaves as tinder, a 9V battery, and your steel wool. Steel wool will burn, but in most cases, it's a dull flameless combustion; that's why tinder is essential in starting the fire. Although any grade would work, using the finest grade available is best.
Tinder is any material that is combustible that can be used as fuel. For example, in the case of a campfire, you could find some dried leaves or dead tree bark. Next, roll your cotton wool into a ball and wrap steel wool around it. Your cotton and steel wool balls can be easily prepared and stored in an airtight can.
To start the fire, fluff the wool a little and rub the leads of the 9V battery against the steel. When it ignites, keep adding some tinder and fan the flame until it's big enough for your needs.
How To Safely Work With Steel Wool
You should remember a few things when handling, burning, and storing steel wool for your safety.
- Never store your steel wool close to heated surfaces, countertops, electrical appliances, or an open flame. Even when camping, don't store the steel wool close to the battery; if these two are dropped in your pocket, you could light your pants.
- You should also store steel wool in an airtight container because it oxidizes and forms rust over time in the presence of oxygen. When this happens, it increases in weight and changes in color to a reddish-brown mass that breaks off easily.
- When burning steel wool, try to get as much ventilation as possible and avoid inhaling the fumes or gases released. You should also use flame-resistant surfaces for this.
How Often Can Steel Wool Catch Fire?
Self-ignition rarely happens with steel wool, so there has to be an ignition source in most cases. And when it's set on fire, it quickly burns.
Most people feel they can't easily attain the temperature needed for steel wool to burn at 1290°F, but that's untrue. The temperature of open flames ranges from 2012°F and can reach up to 4500°F.
So, if you use steel wool often for your domestic cleaning or craft, ensure you handle and store it properly. And as you can never be too safe, always keep a fire extinguisher handy in your home or workshop.
How To Put Out A Fire From Steel Wool
Steel wool burns silently and without flame, so it could go unnoticed. However, precautions should be taken beforehand in storage and use to prevent the danger of it igniting other materials nearby without warning.
However, if a fire does start, you could put it out with carbon dioxide, powder, or foam but not water. Avoid using water, especially when electricity is the ignition source, and also because steel wool still burns when wet. Contact the nearest fire station if the fire spreads beyond your control.
So, is steel wool flammable? The answer is a definite yes, and some steel wools are more flammable owing to the oil coatings manufacturers add. Steel wool will burn even when wet. As useful as it is for multiple purposes, you should always put safety first in its storage and usage.